At the NBA’s quarter pole, we checked in on the Victor Wembanyama NBA Draft sweepstakes. We had seven teams that were presumed to be in the “Brick for Vic” race in the preseason. As a refresher those teams were:
At the quarter-mark of the regular season, we added The New Orleans Pelicans (via the Los Angeles Lakers) and the Charlotte Hornets to the list of teams. That gave us a group of nine teams in the race to the bottom for the most ping pong balls in the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery.
As a reminder, teams no longer need to be egregious about tanking their way to the bottom. The lottery odds give each of the three worst teams the same 14% overall chance at the first overall pick. As of this writing, some of the teams above are bad, but none are unwatchable due to rolling out lineups of fringe NBA players on a nightly basis. There’s still half of the season to go, so that may yet come, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Still, we can update our race a little. Let’s check in on where each team stands in the “Winless for Wemby” competition.
(Note: All records and projections are as of games played through January 10. Projected records are from 538’s RAPTOR model. Remaining schedule strength is provided by Tankathon.)
Current record: 10-30
Projected record: 20-62
Remaining schedule strength: .506, 13th in the NBA
Outlook: The Rockets are still a strong contender to land in the bottom three and to snag a 14% chance at the top pick. Houston is very young and could get even younger if they trade Eric Gordon (the only veteran in their rotation) at the trade deadline. They don’t have any major injuries to work through, but the Rockets are just a naturally bad young team.
With a relatively tough schedule the rest of the way, expect Houston to still be projected for the bottom three when we check in at the three-quarter pole.
Current record: 11-33
Projected record: 22-60
Remaining schedule strength: .491, 24th in the NBA
Outlook: The Pistons are neck-and-neck with the Rockets for the NBA’s worst team. Detroit doesn’t defend and their offense isn’t much better. That’s a combination for a lot of bad basketball. Injuries to Cade Cunningham and Marvin Bagley have hurt their ability to even put competitive lineups on the floor most nights.
Detroit’s remaining strength of schedule is pretty weak, compared to most of the rest of this list. That’s going to hurt them some in the race to the bottom three. But the Pistons are bad enough that it probably doesn’t matter. And if they move Bojan Bogdanovic and/or Alec Burks before the trade deadline, Detroit will be the worst team in the NBA.
San Antonio Spurs
Current record: 13-28
Projected record: 25-57
Remaining schedule strength: .501, 15th in the NBA
Outlook: San Antonio regularly looks like a tanking team. They sit their veterans quite often, and some of their best players have missed considerable time too. But it doesn’t seem intentional, at least on the injury front. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell need the development time, but are both dealing with real injuries. When Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott miss games, it might be draft positioning. But, in general, the Spurs are still going hard each night.
Up until a year ago, the Spurs were reticent to make in-season trades. But they moved some players a year ago, and could do so again at this deadline.. If Poeltl and Richardson aren’t likely to be re-signed this summer, it’s probably best to explore trading them. If that happens, San Antonio should come really close to locking up their place in the bottom three.
Current record: 11-31
Projected record: 27-55
Remaining schedule strength: .492, tied-22nd in the NBA
Outlook: It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Hornets. They had every intention of being a competitive team. But LaMelo Ball has missed 24 games, Gordon Hayward has missed 21 full games and parts of several others, and even the normally robust Terry Rozier III has missed 10 games. That would be tough on any team, but Charlotte doesn’t have anything approaching the depth to handle those kinds of absences.
The schedule is relatively light for the Hornets the rest of the way, but it’s not going to matter. Like the others, if Charlotte moves a few productive vets, or benches them for their kids, they’re going to be bad no matter who they play. Consider them firmly in the mix to challenge for those 14% lottery odds.
Current record: 16-26
Projected record: 28-54
Remaining schedule strength: .516, 5th in the NBA
Outlook: The Magic made a little run at playing themselves out of the Wembanyama race, when they won six straight games in early-December. Even since that streak ended, Orlando has gone a respectable 5-6. The Magic finally got some guards healthy and that’s made a huge difference. They might be as close to full health as they’ll get this season over the next couple of weeks too, as other players are coming off the shelf. That’ll help keep them competitive in games. There also aren’t a bunch of trade-candidate vets propping this team up, unlike a few of their fellow lottery contenders.
What will likely do Orlando in is one of the tougher remaining schedules in the NBA. The Magic will be competitive, and they’ll play hard, and they’ll lose a lot. They probably just won’t lose quite enough to be in the top-three of the lottery. That’s fitting for a Magic team that pretty regular seems to draft 5th or 6th overall, last year notwithstanding.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Current record: 18-23
Projected record: 33-49
Remaining schedule strength: .489, tied-25th in the NBA
Outlook: This is where our preseason expectations of bad teams take a turn. The Thunder haven’t been awful this season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a legit star and their other young kids are rapidly improving. Mark Daigneault is a great coach and Oklahoma City plays really hard. That’s a formula to win a bunch of unexpected games.
As of this writing, the Thunder are only 1.5 games out of the Western Conference Play-In Tournament. That’s close enough that OKC could say “Why not?” and make a run at the postseason. They’ve got a pretty favorable schedule to close. Unlike the six teams ahead of them, the Thunder are looking like they’ll need some serious lottery luck for their shot at drafting Wembanyama.
Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans (via Los Angeles Lakers), Utah Jazz
We’re taking these three teams off the list of “Vomiting for Victor” challengers.
The Pacers are flat out good. They’re far more of a danger to make the top-6 in the Eastern Conference than they are to be anywhere near the depths of the lottery. And with nearly $27 million in cap space to work with at the trade deadline, Indiana could add some talent. They’re very likely a permanent removal from this list.
The Pelicans aren’t going to get lucky by having the Lakers do their tanking for them. At least...we don’t think they are. Los Angeles has started to play better, and Anthony Davis’ return is looming in the next few weeks. Given the Lakers have no reason to tank, they’ll keep pushing until they’re eliminated. That has the buzz around New Orleans changing towards trading this pick for win-now help vs hoping for the Basketball Gods to smile upon them again in Zion-like fashion.
The Jazz just keep hanging around. A handful of times, it’s looked like Utah was starting slip down towards the lottery range. Then they kind of rally. Who knows what Danny Ainge will do at the deadline? Utah has a bunch of interesting vets for trades, but they seem to be relishing playing well. At this point, even if the Jazz do fall out of the Play-In race, they aren’t going to fall far enough that they’ll be in the mix for Wembanyama.